SamhainFind the date for Samhain 2012 in the multifaith calendar
Samhain (pronounced 'sow'inn') is a very important date in the Pagan calendar for it marks the Feast of the Dead. Many Pagans also celebrate it as the old Celtic New Year (although some mark this at Imbolc). It is also celebrated by non-Pagans who call this festival Halloween.
Samhain has been celebrated in Britain for centuries and has its origin in Pagan Celtic traditions. It was the time of year when the veils between this world and the Otherworld were believed to be at their thinnest: when the spirits of the dead could most readily mingle with the living once again. Later, when the festival was adopted by Christians, they celebrated it as All Hallows' Eve, followed by All Saints Day, though it still retained elements of remembering and honouring the dead.
To most modern Pagans, while death is still the central theme of the festival this does not mean it is a morbid event. For Pagans, death is not a thing to be feared. Old age is valued for its wisdom and dying is accepted as a part of life as necessary and welcome as birth. While Pagans, like people of other faiths, always honour and show respect for their dead, this is particularly marked at Samhain. Loved ones who have recently died are remembered and their spirits often invited to join the living in the celebratory feast. It is also a time at which those born during the past year are formally welcomed into the community. As well as feasting, Pagans often celebrate Samahin with traditional games such as apple-dooking.
Death also symbolises endings and Samhain is therefore not only a time for reflecting on mortality, but also on the passing of relationships, jobs and other significant changes in life. A time for taking stock of the past and coming to terms with it, in order to move on and look forward to the future.
Ancient Celtic celebrationsNot only did the Celts believe the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead dissolved on this night, they thought that the presence of the spirits helped their priests to make predictions about the future.
To celebrate Samhain the Druids built huge sacred bonfires. People brought harvest food and sacrificed animals to share a communal dinner in celebration of the festival.
During the celebration the Celts wore costumes - usually animal heads and skins. They would also try and tell each other's fortunes.
After the festival they re-lit the fires in their homes from the sacred bonfire to help protect them, as well as keep them warm during the winter months.
Lammas (also called Lughnasadh)Find the date for Lammas 2012 in the multifaith calendar
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne'er fail in old Scotland!
Traditional Scottish poem
Celts held the festival of the Irish god Lugh at this time and later, the Anglo-Saxons marked the festival of hlaefmass - loaf mass or Lammas - at this time.
For these agricultural communities this was the first day of the harvest, when the fields would be glowing with corn and reaping would begin. The harvest period would continue until Samhain when the last stores for the winter months would be put away.
Although farming is not an important part of modern life, Lughnasadh is still seen as a harvest festival by Pagans and symbols connected with the reaping of corn predominate in its rites.
BeltaneFind this year's date in the multifaith calendar
Beltane is a Celtic word which means 'fires of Bel' (Bel was a Celtic deity). It is a fire festival that celebrates of the coming of summer and the fertility of the coming year.
Celtic festivals often tied in with the needs of the community. In spring time, at the beginning of the farming calendar, everybody would be hoping for a fruitful year for their families and fields.
Beltane rituals would often include courting: for example, young men and women collecting blossoms in the woods and lighting fires in the evening. These rituals would often lead to matches and marriages, either immediately in the coming summer or autumn.
Other festivities involved fire which was thought to cleanse, purify and increase fertility. Cattle were often passed between two fires and the properties of the flame and the smoke were seen to ensure the fertility of the herd.
Today Pagans believe that at Beltane the God (to whom the Goddess gave birth at the Winter Solstice) achieves the strength and maturity to court and become lover to the Goddess. So although what happens in the fields has lost its significance for most Pagans today, the creation of fertility is still an important issue.
Emma Restall Orr, a modern day Druid, speaks of the 'fertility of our personal creativity'. (Spirits of the Sacred Grove, pub. Thorsons, 1998, pg.110). She is referring to the need for active and creative lives. We need fertile minds for our work, our families and our interests.
Fire is still the most important element of most Beltane celebrations and there are many traditions associated with it. It is seen to have purifying qualities which cleanse and revitalise. People leap over the Beltane fire to bring good fortune, fertility (of mind, body and spirit) and happiness through the coming year.
Although Beltane is the most overtly sexual festival, Pagans rarely use sex in their rituals although rituals often imply sex and fertility. The tradition of dancing round the maypole contains sexual imagary and is still very popular with modern Pagans.
The largest Beltane celebrations in the UK are held in Edinburgh. Fires are lit at night and festivities carry on until dawn. All around the UK fires are lit and private celebrations are held amongst covens and groves (groups of Pagans) to mark the start of the summer.
ImbolcFind this year's date in the multifaith calendar
As the light lengthens, so the cold strengthens
Imbolc was one of the cornerstones of the Celtic calendar. For them the success of the new farming season was of great importance. As winter stores of food were getting low Imbolc rituals were performed to harness divine energy that would ensure a steady supply of food until the harvest six months later.
Like many Celtic festivals, the Imbolc celebrations centred around the lighting of fires. Fire was perhaps more important for this festival than others as it was also the holy day of Brigid (also known as Bride, Brigit, Brid), the Goddess of fire, healing and fertility. The lighting of fires celebrated the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. For the Christian calendar, this holiday was reformed and renamed 'Candlemas' when candles are lit to remember the purification of the Virgin Mary.
Imbolc is still a special time for Pagans. As people who are deeply aware of what is going on in the natural world they recognise that there is strength in cold as well as heat, death as well as life. The Horned God reigns over the Autumn and Winter and although the light and warmth of the world may be weak, he is still in his power.
Many feel that human actions are best when they reflect the actions of nature, so as the world slowly springs back into action it is time for the small tasks that are neglected through the busy year. Rituals and activities might include the making of candles, planting spring flowers, reading poetry and telling stories.